The Problem Of Contentment

Why is contentment a problem? As with most aspects of godly character, contentment is a middle path between two unacceptable extremes, complacency and covetousness. In our world contentment is rare–we are rarely satisfied with our relationships, with our possessions, with our place in life. We are complacent when it comes to our morals–not often diligent in fulfilling our duties, or we are covetous when it comes to desiring more power and money and higher positions for ourselves. But though we often oscillate between complacency and covetousness, we seldom find contentment, much less remain there for any length of time.

Contentment is an active state, though it is often portrayed passively. It is an active satisfaction with what God has given in blessings and relationships, taking those steps as is necessary to keep relationships strong and fulfill the responsibilities of one’s offices. Neither of these is very easy to do. We must do these things while resisting both the urge to coast and to fail to give our best to fulfill our responsibilities to others as well as the envy and dissatisfaction that come from feeling ignored or unappreciated for what one does for often thankless tasks done for unthankful people, and while remaining patient for God to fulfill our deepest and unmet longings. I won’t pretend that it is any easier for me than it is for anyone else, but it is (like many problems) something I struggle very seriously with.

There are many enemies to contentment but they generally boil down to one of two larger categories: complacency or covetousness. Each of these can be a serious enemy to genuine contentment–one because it places undue stress on others for our free riding and failure to behave responsibly, and the other because it places pressure on our relationships with others and our stability because of our desire for more that we do not possess, which can lead us to neglect to appreciate those things that we do have. In fact, these two enemies are in reality often mirror images of each other, and sometimes both present in the same problems.

It is especially galling when people are complacent about themselves but try to nag others into doing more. For example, when people demand that other people cut them a lot of slack because of health problems or age or other factors but are not willing to cut the same amount of slack for others, there is a serious problem. The same is true when others demand to be forgiven of their mistakes but are not willing to do the same for others either. What we have here are failures in respect and reciprocity that make genuine relationships impossible. The same is true in reverse. We might be poisoned with ambition and desire to climb the ladder to reach the height of our ambitions but might expect our partner to be content with the little time that we can give them and with less desirable tasks because of our ambition. This is also a failure of reciprocity, desiring the benefits of ambition and covetousness for ourselves while being complacent about the state of our relationships and desiring all of the work for stability and contentment to come from others as a free benefit to us. Here respect is lacking as well.

What makes contentment so hard is that it requires a lot of effort and its benefits tend to be back-loaded. Most us are oriented to working with short-term time frames. We want success to be fairly immediate to reward our labors quickly–and those tasks that do not offer instant gratification of some kind tend to get neglected as unsatisfying, regardless of how important and necessary they are. Likewise, we are generally also unwilling to pay and suffer now for benefit later on. This asymmetry between our inability either to wait for benefits or accept present suffering in exchange for future glory tends to reinforce only a very small amount of behaviors that are generally not productive over the long run. But, with that mindset, future values tend to be discounted to zero anyway, so the long run is not even taken into consideration.

Both covetousness and complacency are short-term oriented strategies. Complacency is the strategy we operate when we do not want to think about future suffering so we put it out of mind by not worrying about problems or dealing with them before it is absolutely necessary and we are forced to wrestle with them. Covetousness is our look for short-term benefits (especially from what others possess or what we do not have) without an eye toward long-term sustainability or viability. One strategy focuses on our desire to avoid suffering and unpleasantness, and the other on our desire for results now without being patient for steady long-term growth. And both tend to result in bad long-term results–burnout, broken relationships, mistrust and skepticism over repeated false promises.

So, contentment is a problem. It is hard to do one’s duties when other people do not appreciate how difficult those tasks are to accomplish. It is hard to remain content and not succumb to envy when you see other people enjoy your deepest longings and see no way for you to enjoy those anytime soon. It is hard to trust that God will fulfill His promises when you are used to other people not meeting their duties and responsibilities in the past. It is hard to be good when evil seems to prosper for now. It is hard to work hard and be patient when no results seem forthcoming. No one said contentment was easy–the real question is whether it is worth it, when viewed over the long run.

Again, assuming we are dealing with people who are genuinely hard working and value relationships and are trustworthy people of integrity, is it better to be patient? Absolutely. Is it better to accept the strengths and weaknesses of those we are in relationships and to work toward minimizing the weaknesses and maximizing the strengths, whether we are in businesses or governments or families or churches? Absolutely. But, we have to make sure that we are neither too covetous and pushy for ourselves (or too nagging of others) or too complacent about ourselves and our relationships. That is the real difficulty of contentment, the real problem we have to deal with. Balance is always difficult to attain and even more difficult to maintain in the face of pressures in many directions. What was satisfactory in the past may not be in the present, and certainly will not be in the future. Some growth is expected over time, and as a result, our contentment tends to mean that requirements be scaled to grow at a steady and gradual rate, not so fast that it requires shortcuts and leads to burnout, and not nonexistent so that we become lazy and complacent. Rather, our goal is to be pokey turtles moving little by little in the right direction, consolidating our gains, and then moving on to further challenges while remaining content with what God has given us for now, in the hope that we will receive the blessings and objects of our longing if we remain patient and hardworking.

About nathanalbright

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27 Responses to The Problem Of Contentment

  1. I have since realized why the Bible is written in direct lasnguage and it is to show or stress the two extremes designed for one to find a balance as it relates to the individual life for to affect the whole. To be a weak person is to succumb or adhere to one of the extremes. Balanace is the point of life in everything that God has created. A person who has had enough or finds maddness of the extremes will recognize the importance of contentment and find balance in appreciation for the simple things.

    • That is certainly the case. All too often people fail to recognize the tension between the two extremes, though, and succumb to either one or the other (or both at various points).

  2. I can also recognize that most people I meet really are sleeping in that they appear to be lost to confusion and indecision and this I believe is what happens when people look to other humans for guidance.

    • Well, that is indeed a common problem. Most people do not have any sort of practice in priorities or making difficult choices, or the inclination to do so. What does one expect?

  3. The blind leading the blind

  4. I will go out on a ledge today and say that i sense the world governments are at the point of no return meaning that they are now seriousely beginning to recognize they are not qualified to lead the people, the time is fast coming where them who lead will be begging to be led because of recognizing they are not “qualified” nor have they been “ordained” by anyonbe other than merre mortal men.

    • Well, I imagine that plenty of political classes in Europe are aware of the fact that they are unable to lead and lack legitimacy–one reason there have been a lot of caretaker governments in places like Greece and Belgium where political problems have become unsolvable given the existing political order. Of course, this practical abdication of rule to caretaker governments does not signal a loss of ambition, just an intellectual bankruptcy and a populace that is unwilling and unable to make hard choices but seeks scapegoats to blame.

  5. “Intellectual bankruptcy”

    I cannot be sure if this is a de javu moment or we have covered this before but in any event. Yes, men are mere mortals, and given the time to realize by practice and experience we all, at one time find that we are not qualified nor have we been ordained and it is at this time (recognition of commonplace) when the man becomes mature (humble and wise) When this happens on a grand scale we will find some if not most politicians weeping and this is what we (the common people) really want and it is more so what they (the politicians) need and will do if we are going to find relief.

    • It would be nice to think that the maturation of the general public and the (necessary) humbling of political elites is on the way, but I am not so sanguine myself. When I look at the state of the world it looks like the 1850’s or 1930’s when I look at history, a people that is lost and looking for a leader to lead them out of the morass and into a brave new world. Only I think that, like before, it will be a tragic ending rather than a glorious one. I don’t see the urge to take personal responsibility, but rather the desire to blame scapegoats for difficult problems in which we all share some of the blame, and where the only solutions promised are denial or immense suffering unless we find more resources than we see at present.

  6. Again to comment on “Intellectual bankruptcy”,

    As I keep pounding away with my theory of biopsychodynamics that we humans are absurd (Paradoxical) sentient beings of essence and inference and not as “intelligent” as we hope or believe we are because if humans were in fact intelligent in the least, we would not be in this world crisis. to be truly intelligent is to recognize that you are not the greatest thing person since white sliced bread. The time to strike is when the enemy is weak and the people are finding manmy weaknesses in government. The only way to “strike and smite this ememy is with compassion and forgiveness. Let the people get this message correct and we may be helping our own selves by accepting a new paradigm to replace this current destructive one. Kill them with kindness is not a new motto. Send letters to your leaders and let them know that we understand how it is that they too have been victimized by our own ignorance and immaturity. The people must let them know that we are ready to forgive them and we do not seek to kill them. No one can tell me that they (leaders) are inhuman and that they are not afraid for thier own lives. They (the politicians) know that the common people are frustrated and that in an all out war some oficials will die horrible deaths as much as the commoner. Also we need to write letters to all them who learn war and remind them that they are killing their own families by agreeing to kill the members of other families in other countries. The police who combat the protestors must know they are going to one day be staring right into the eyes of a relative and must know that it is their choice to lay down the batton and turn around and walk away never to learn war no more. The motto for this day must be “STOP”!

    • Indeed, the time is right to forgive. But forgiveness must be broad if we are to avoid immense suffering, and even then there will be consequences. Are we willing to forgive the underwater mortgages, the student loans, the sovereign debt, the unsustainable entitlements, and cease to look for scapegoats in conspiracies and foreigners and minorities? I don’t see that will among the people. If we are willing to make a clean sweep of widespread forgiveness and reconciliation, I could see it working, but it’s hard to be that optimistic when people are looking for blood and sabotaging those who work for peace and forgiveness.

  7. Sorry, what problem is that to be clear?

    • The problem of failing legitimacy in governments, the inability of people and governments to meet their obligations for the same underlying reasons, the abandonment of the people to austerity while governments try to hand off the unpleasant actions made to meet the requirements of creditors to technocratic caretakers or blame speculators and other hobgoblins, and the issue of contagion, or the way in which we are all involved and all implicated in the mess through our own behaviors. Nowhere in that whole mess do I see people of any nation looking to forgive and start again from scratch.

  8. The world needs a new worldview or paradigm but it will not come without pain and suffering. The pain and suffering we are experiencing now is only felt by them who are paying attention as the rest do not care (apathy) or most likely are not “able” to care (absence of empathy). It is them who do not or are not able to care that is the problem. It is them whom we must shout “STOP”! Such people are “lukewarm” and no one really likes a lukewarm person, especially God as He will puke them out of His mouth.

    • There are plenty of people who do not care or who lack empathy. But there are also plenty of people who are already suffering and for whom it seems unjust to ask them to suffer more without any opportunities to make life better. 50% of Spain’s young adults are unemployed, and 25% of their labor force. That’s about the worst level of the US during the Great Depression, and that’s been the case for a while there now. Greece is almost as bad, having suffered five straight years of depression so far. Such suffering has already been going on for a while, and there are no answers among those who are in charge about when things are going to get better, and so incumbents keep losing elections and the people at large seem to be losing patience, at least from what I can see and read, and I find that a troubling sign, since angry people are seldom merciful.

  9. J.Richard Crant says:

    Somehow people must get to know that the capacity for agression is meant to be directed at sickness and our weaknesses such as many are lazy towards happiness in that happiness is a choice and not a product of circumstance. Them who lead us are governed by the same laws that govern all living organisms. They are not superhuman and neither are we commoners but we are powerful beyond all comprehension in our capacity to forgive when it is universal and broad so yes we must be committed to forgive all and agree to start over less we all suffer more and die from ignorance of what type of beings we truly are which again is without a doubt that can be proven that we are absurd sentient beings of essence and inference. I do not know any other way to say it except that them whom I have reached with this understanding report a life changing experience that is real and can be recognized as being concrete and measurable.

    • Aggression does have a point in self-defense, but all too often it is directed at the people who are judged to be weak and not at weakness or sin itself. We can all say that we hate the sin and love the sinner, but when push comes to shove we often tend to personalize sin, and that makes it harder to find peace, because we see people as evil rather than as seeking to make the best of circumstances without a great deal of time or wisdom or different ways of coping. We must give others the same mercy we demand for ourselves, but it seldom ends up working out that way.

  10. Because we fail to recognize our true selves first. If there is anything to profit from educating the masses it must first be the fact that we are not to strive to become something else as we are complete in what sort of beings we are. Since the fall, mankind has been ignorantly striving to change,,,why?

    • Well, and this is topical, humanity fell because of lust. We wanted to be like God, and so we ate the forbidden fruit. Our fall was the result of our loss of contentment with what God had given us, and the place that God had given us. As a result, we have either tended to want to be like God in our intuition or knowledge or power or authority (covetousness) or we have wanted someone else to take upon themselves that responsibility so that we could be freed from it (complacency). The striving or the laziness are the result of the lust and covetousness that exist in our hearts.

  11. Pure and simple, I agree with you and to answer I will stand with the fact that we have failed to recognize what sort or type of beings we are in the true sense. From what I can gather you have personally been affected by what this theory has shown up and I must remind the readers that i did not create this nor did I devise this myself from my own intuition, it was and is a serendipitous discovery, I tripped over it and lay no claim to it other than being one at present who can explain it and am willing to report it to whomever wishes to hear or listen. I cannot believe just how lazy some people are because of the fact that the many whom have been affected in a positive and life changing way from what this theory suggests or reveals have not moved to spread it around or announce it to whomever they can because of place or position. A sad state of affairs that reflect just what you have stated above in your comments and observations of coveteousness and complacency. We must empty out before we can fill the cup again with something new I suspect and until we are prepared and willing to empty out there will be no change.

    • We have to understand that the majority of people are pretty unenlightened when it comes to how to best live life, much less any kind of ethical system to live by. Add to that the fact that there is much less interest in showing empathy to other people these days outside of very narrow cliques and you have a recipe for very self-centered, even solipsistic mindsets. It is very hard for anything good to come out of that.

  12. Pingback: The Man Who Would Not Be Moved | Edge Induced Cohesion

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